Preview: Game of Adversaries by Susan Elizabeth Curnow

Chapter One

Ice-laden wind tore around Galcia Guardron to find every gap in Marcus Oregada’s clothing. His cloak sodden with snow, he shivered, the chill so deep that his bones aches as tears froze to his lashes. Would he ever feel warm again? Three days of storm, and snow climbed into ever higher drifts, sending crofter and villager to seek shelter behind castle walls.

Toes numb in his boots, Marcus let another family through the gates into Galcia Guardron. Folk already lined hall and corridor, vying for space out of drafts, and tripping over others’ pathetic belongings. Did his wife fare better in Belgrat Guardron, four days ride to the north? Without the storm he wouldn’t be here, shepherding people in from the cold, when his Katerina was so close to birthing their first child.

One look at the shuddering masses with blackened fingers convinced Marcus that love must yield to duty. Folk had slogged their way to the castle from as far away as Frenton village. Those in the outreaches were probably close to dying. He could not send men to help them, knowing none would survive.

Behind him cattle, sheep, and goats milled, turning the central courtyard into a mess of dung-colored slush. Not even the sharp chill could douse the stench of so many beasts. Loud moos, bleats and cries reflected their restless churning as they sought place in new hers. The sounds echoed, even above the wind’s roar, within the castle walls.

Ice clung to Marcus’s beard and moustache as he cajoled exhausted folk, animals and guardsmen into some form of organization. Since his men had worked outside all day, not even the commander of Galcia’s garrison would shirk duty for a brazier in the hall.

Visibility down to a few yards from the drawbridge, snow swirled in angry patterns to turn a man dizzy. Icicles hung from the portcullis like a panpipe, threatening to stab unwary travelers. Marcus didn’t remember a storm such as this. Had not King Eidric showed his charity by sheltering those he could, they and their animals might have died, frozen in place like so many ghosts.

“There’s no more room, Commander,” Captain Garet came to say.

Despite the chaos behind Marcus, many folk remained outside. He could not save them all, even when frustration and pity clenched his heart. Garet looked no better than Marcus felt. His nose and cheeks scarlet under his helm, he shivered in his boots, too close to that point when a man would simply lie down and embrace death.

“Get inside,” Marcus ordered. “We’ll close the gates in a short while. One hour shifts for all men.”

A goat made a bid for freedom past Marcus. He leapt and caught it by the horns, ignoring its bleats of distress as he manhandled it into the courtyard. There’d be arguments enough when it came to sorting which beast belonged to whom. At least they wouldn’t freeze their blood. Even breathing iced his lungs. He’d sent guards inside already, blood streaming out their noses.

The goat safe, Marcus stamped his feet and swung his arms. As circulation returned, sharp needles of pain replaced numbness, which meant he wouldn’t lose his toes. Katerina would be happy if he lost his toes, or any other parts for that matter. It would take a warm fire to convince him he still owned a pair of balls.

The weather might not be this bad at Belgrat. His baby better wait to be born until he could be there to welcome it and hold his wife’s hand, convention be damned.

“Rider!” Garet croaked. He’d stayed with his commander, disobeying orders.

Marcus shielded frozen lashes to peer through the snow. A beast stumbled in the whiteness. Garet and Marcus ploughed through drifts to reach horse and rider in time.

The messenger lay on the horse’s neck, both encased in ice and snow. The animal’s lungs heaved in distress. Its limbs trembled with fatigue. Marcus called more men to help. Between them they got horse and rider through the gate. Marcus carried the messenger into the gatehouse where several guards stood around a brazier. Men moved aside for Marucs to set the soldier on the wooden floor.

“Strip him and wrap him in blankets—get the surgeon, quickly!” Marcus shouted while he chafed limbs.

A guard ran off as Marcus and Garet unfastened frozen ties and buckles. The man could not even shiver.

“Belgrat, sir,” Garet whispered.

Marcus had seen the badge the moment he’d laid the messenger down. Fear set his heart racing. It was as though his thoughts had brought the rider here. Why would anybody attempt a journey in such weather if not to bring him news he feared?

He cleared a throat dry as ashes, the urge to shake answers from the poor man both sickening and overwhelming.

“Elim?” he asked, remembering the soldier’s name.

Elim’s eyes fluttered open.

While Marcus waited for him to focus, a soldier placed a warm drink in Marcus’s hand. He lifted Elim’s head and held the cup to his lips.

After two sips, the soldier closed his eyes.

Marcus shook him gently. “Elim?”

“Belgrat’s gone,” Elim rasped.

Marcus’s fingers tightened on Elim’s shoulder. “Gone? What do you mean?”

“Men… riding dragons. Breathing fire… weapons killed without touch.”

Dragons? The man must be fevered. What happened to Katerina, goddammit! He drew a breath to force calm. With patience he didn’t feel, Marcus said, “You aren’t making sense, Elim.”

Elim’s eyes wandered, searching, to rest on Marcus’s face. “Didn’t make sense, sir. Thunder and lightning. Village destroyed. Men appearing like magic.”

“What of my father and brothers?”


A lump formed in Marcus’s throat. “Women and children?”

Elim shook his head.

A white haze filled his vision. It was as though his heart stopped; racing with dread one moment then nothing. “Why do you still live?” Marcus asked in shock.

Elim stirred. “Your brother… before he fell, he sent me. To warn.”

“How long ago?”

“Two… maybe three…”

Marcus had to know. “Katerina?”

“A daughter, you had a daughter,” Elim whispered.

“Do they still live?” Marcus cried. “Elim?” This time he shook the soldier, who lolled, boneless. He’d lost consciousness.

The surgeon arrived with his tools. He bent down quickly by Elim, felt for his pulse, and looked up. “How far did he ride?”

“Belgrat,” Marcus said.

“Then he used all his strength getting here. Brave lad. It’ll be a while before he comes to. Best let him rest if you want him alive.”

You must do something! Marcus wanted to cry. I need to know if she’s alive. I need—Marcus climbed to his feet. Shaken and numb with more than cold, his brain refused to work. He clenched his hands into fists, bewildered by Elim’s words. How could Belgrat have gone? Dragons? Dragons came out of children’s stories. Elim had to be out of his mind. Perhaps Katerina was alive. Maybe his parents and siblings were.

“Saddle my stallion,” he ordered Garet.

His captain faced him. “Commander, you can’t! This man is half-dead from the cold. Maybe tomorrow—“

“Tomorrow will be too late!” Marcus snapped.

“Maybe it’s already too late.”

Strung tight as a crossbow, Marcus’s fist swung at words he never wanted to hear. A prop holding up the ceiling shook under the impact of a man driven too far.

Marcus knew what he had to do. Since his duty as commander was all that he had left, he’d keep the threat from coming here. Even if his family still lived, he’d risk no one else in the storm. He ordered a message sent to King Eidric then made his way to the stables, pushing past restive beasts. He was halfway through saddling his stallion when Prince Aarvern arrived.

“This is madness,” Aarvern stated.

Finished with tightening his girth, Marcus leaned with one hand on the pommel before turning to face the young prince. “Yes, it possibly is, but it’s my family, Aarvern. If someone has overthrown Belgrat, we need to act.”

“My sire knows your mind. He wants information as you do, and begs you take no risks.”

He’d probably said it in more colorful language. In different circumstances, Marcus might have smiled. “I’ll be as careful as I can, that I promise.”

He clasped hands with Aarvern.

Eidric’s son grimaced and left the stables.

As Marcus un-tethered the stallion, three men approached, Garet among them.

He held a fur-lined cloak over one arm. “His majesty sent this and a squad to fo with you.”

Twenty-five men. He hadn’t wanted to risk so many. Marcus took the cloak, touched my his men’s loyalty and grateful for Eidric’s intervention. “I only want volunteers.”

“Aye, sir. Men are already provisioning. We’ll change horses at every posthouse. We can make it in two days, even in this weather. We need to watch each other’s backs because the first enemy is cold.”

* * *

To the last dying beat of a drum, Yiahan rial Krais sank to his knees, hand raise in supplication to Vari.

Silence fell as the echoes in Vari’s Hall faded. The prince of nine worlds waited, chest heaving, calves cramping, ankles aching.

As one, his audience bowed, their thoughts sent in one vast accolade of appreciation.

He’d done it, when his teachers said he couldn’t. You cannot be a prince with all the responsibility that entails and dance for the god.

They were wrong.

He’d succeeded in interpreting Vari’s perfection, lifting the hearts and minds of others with the grace of his art.

Yiahan bowed, locking such thoughts behind a door in his mind, when he wanted to leap up and punch the air in sheer joy.

It was more than personal joy. Vari had lifted him in his leaps and balanced him in his spins. He’d steadied his feet on landing. Silently, Yiahan thanked the god. He had sought perfection to come as close as he ever would. Those moments of harmony still sang through his veins, instilling more faith and love than Yiahan could articulate.

Nothing could touch him.

Shaking with Vari’s glory, Yiahan acknowledged the respect of his people then retreated from Vari’s hall through a small side door. Servants waited to take his clothes and steer him toward the bliss of hot water. If they sensed he had gone somewhere deep today, he could only be grateful they left him in peace.

Beneath the torrents of the shower, Yiahan let the warmth ease tired muscles. When the servants left and someone else entered, he knew instantly. A mental smile reached Kersantia as he emerged from the steaming water into his wife’s arms.

He held her, the delightful curve of her womb swelling in between them. Against his named skin the baby kicked. He thanked Vari for that gift.

“I’m as large as a seacow,” Kersantia declared.

Only she could bring him back to reality. He tucked a strand of golden hair behind one of her ears. “As beautiful as a sistentium flower.”

Her laughter touched him. Yiahan leaned forward and kissed her, lingering as their mouths met, wanting to share the joy he’d found. You taste of flowers, too.

And you of the god.

Gently he pulled away. I felt Vari today more strongly than ever. I gave myself over to him.

Tears formed in her blue eyes. Such beauty, Yiahan, and it wasn’t just Vari. You are…. I can’t find words to express it. Every woman of Ariasthenise envies me. You are god-touched indeed.

Today that might be true. He caressed the curve of their child. “You don’t need to express it, my love. I taste your thoughts as well as your lips. If I’ve returned what Vari gives me, I can be content. As for other women?” He shrugged. “You are the light of my life. Only Vari may eclipse you.”

Her hand covered his. “Or your son.”

“Am I not doubly blessed? What woman would prefer this to the ease of a birthing tank.?”

Her mouth formed a wry smile. “Only the wife of the prince of Ariasthenise.” She reached to caress his face. “They are so wrong, Yiahan, to miss out on a babe’s growth, lest they spoil the lines of their gowns. Beauty isn’t everything. I would have missed so much. We know each other already, and he knows you as well. If he has not yet seen you dance, he has heard its music within my womb.”

“Only you,” he said softly, catching her hand and kissing the palm. “Only you could I love like this.”

A servant waited outside the door. “Enter,” Yiahan called, sensing her impatience.

“Your ship awaits, Your Highness. May I assist you with your clothing?”

“No, thank you, Temera. I will manage.” Kersantia already wore a blue suit, sensible for travel.

The servant bowed and left.

Yiahan sighed. “Duty calls. Does the traveling tire you too much?”

“No, love, I can rest while you fly. It is only a short hop to Betronia.”

Yiahan crossed to a wardrobe, where he pulled out a pale-green flight suit. He donned it quickly then smiled his thanks at Kersantia, who plaited his hair in a long tail. As they left, he snatched another kiss.

Vari’s hall stood empty. Rainbows of light from a roof-set crystal reached the dais where he’d danced. Silent, the hall became more ethereal, its sanctity and harmony an atmosphere one could inhale.

Beyond Vari’s sanctuary, they walked the palace’s marble halls. Polite, the citizens left them their privacy unless unavoidable. Those they did meet bowed love to the ground in homage to their emperor’s son.

Glass doors opened onto the street where a ground car awaited them. Yiahan paused to look back at the palace of Incaprible. Strong sunlight transformed the many glass windows into one great shining gem. Harmony sang to him as he stepped into the car after helping Kersantia into her seat.

The car whisked past streets with serenity of still pools, ordered with the permanence that only peace could create. As they arrived at the space terminal, Yiahan found it had to image that the world of Ariasthenise had been any less advanced millennia ago. They’d grown beyond violence to embrace beauty in all its forms. This world of peace and perfection, created from barren rock, epitomized who the Arias were.

Sarius, his ship, waited beyond the doors of an elevator, to take Yiahan across the galaxy between his sire’s other words.

The ship’s sentient computer greeted him as he stepped aboard with Kersantia. The hatch closed behind them, leaving Sarius their only company. Yiahan savored the rarity of being alone with Kersantia. Sarius would shield them from outside thoughts, just as their own would stay between them.

Clothes, jewels and court paraphernalia already packed, Kersantia retired to their cabin while Yiahan went to the bridge. From the floor, a chair arose. He seated himself at the console.

“Is all well, Sarius?”

“All… is well, my Prince.”

Yiahan frowned at her hesitation. “Has there been a systems problem, Sarius?”

“None that I have not overcome, my Prince. Shall I alert the spacedock that departure is imminent?”

“Please do.”

Whatever the problem had been, Yiahan felt sure she’d fixed it. A machine could not lie. Later he would ask questions. For now a drift of thought, light as gossamer, reached him. As Sarius finalized their departure, Yiahan closed his eyes, reaching out to his wife.

Rest, my love. We’ll be at Betronia soon enough.

You aren’t lonely?

Always for your presence—sleep.

Kersantia sent warmth, love and a mental kiss. He smiled.

Sarius could fly herself with the ship’s mind on automatic, but Yiahan wasn’t tired; adrenaline still filled him. He formed a neural link to the ship to watch the worlds through her eyes then summoned orchestral music to match the magnificence of the stars.


Note from the Author:  Susan Elizbeth Curnow

Games of Adversaries is about contrasts. The story opens with two men, one fighting a brutal snow storm outside a castle, the second dancing to his god on a distant world of wealth and advancement. Two men from different worlds brought together by tragedy and need against a common threat. Complex men who grow to understand one another through pain and war and why sometimes it is necessary to fight. The underlying theme of PTSD runs through the story and how that affects people. But there is also the fun of writing a story with spaceships and castles in the same context. The confusion of different ideologies. The stench of medieval life versus modern conveniences. There is arrogance of strength versus mysticism and arrogance of, I have the strength to take your world, try stopping me.

A quote from a reader, Tali Spencer:

This is a clear-eyed book that does not flinch from a difficult subject and it also has a large overarching plot with the fates of planets hanging on the outcome. Marcus and Yiahan, especially, provide some wonderful character moments, as do the mostly male supporting cast. But Games of Adversaries managed to do what few books do: it satisfied my love of philosophical underpinnings. Much as I sometimes love simple, fluffy books because I need the lightness, few things make me as happy as a deep, complex book that gives me a few things to think about. Five stars for that and for taking me on an exciting journey between worlds.  

Thank you, Tali.


If you enjoyed the sample preview of Game of Adversaries, get the book and don’t forget to check out the Susan Elizabeth Curnow’s website for more information.

Preview: The Ritual by Erica Dakin

Chapter One of the Ritual

Concentrate, steady, stay relaxed. My mantra ran through my head in a constant litany, more out of habit than out of a real need to focus on the words. It was an old trick, one I’d developed from the very first lesson with my master Naerev, back when I had just started learning my ‘trade’, and it had stuck.

I felt a bead of sweat trickle down between my breasts, but ignored it as I ran my fingers across the lockpicks in their velvet roll, finally settling on the one I thought might open the lock on the jewellery coffer in front of me.

I slipped it into the tiny lock and closed my eyes, allowing my fingers to feel the delicate movement of the intricate mechanism as I tried to prise it open. It took a few heartbeats, but then I heard a muted click and grinned, satisfied.

Another bead of sweat formed, trickling down my temple, and I allowed myself a moment to wipe it away before I carefully lifted the lid to examine the contents. I recognised the pieces I’d seen earlier and my grin widened when I saw several more of even higher value. Foolish elf, to display his wealth so ostentatiously, yet neglect to implement sufficient measures to keep rogues like me out. No dogs in the house or on the property, locks on the windows and doors that were barely a challenge to me, and finally this jewellery coffer, also with a cheap lock and in a dressing chamber off the main bedroom rather than in a room where people slept.

A loud snore emanated from that same bedroom, and my elation dropped a notch when I remembered how that elven lord, so peacefully asleep next door, had swanned around with his human whore on his arm earlier in the day. Few elvish men were as open about their obsession with humans as this one, but it was common enough that there was an entire industry catering for it. And unfortunately, such couplings were sufficiently fertile to often result in children, half elvish and half human, like my sister and I. Cross-breeds who could never have their own children, for all half-elves were invariably barren.

I quickly started transferring the jewellery into my velvet loot bag, suddenly wanting to be out of there, away from the repulsive thought that his whore might still be there, and that they had fucked each other to exhaustion.

Then the door creaked and I froze, cold sweat sending a shiver down my back. The snoring had stopped – had I been discovered? I remained poised like that for several moments before something brushed against my shin, and I almost yelped with surprise. Cold, stark terror gripped me for an instant before my brain worked it out: a cat.

I carefully let my breath escape and reached down to scratch the animal’s silky ear before pushing it away. It started purring, loud enough to wake the dead, and I realised that I had outstayed my welcome. Both Shani and I needed to eat, so my first priority was to get out of here undetected and with enough loot to give us some good, hard coin. Opportunities like this particular house did not come along often enough that I could afford to waste it by getting caught.

It was a matter of moments to climb out the window and shimmy down the ivy growing against the house, and from there I skulked to the spot where I had hidden my cloak and a rag to scrub my face. The boot grease wouldn’t come off altogether like that, but even at this time of the night, in this part of the city, the streets were busy enough that I didn’t want to stand out as much as I did with a black face and in skin-tight black velvet.

Luck really was with me tonight, it seemed. I reached my bundle just as a beggar was about to make off with it, and he nearly jumped out of his skin when I grabbed him by the arm.

“Drop it, that’s mine,” I said, keeping my voice low.

His eyes gleamed at me from a handsome face nearly as black as mine, except with dirt rather than grease. Half-elf, it flashed through my mind, but although he was grimy and smelled, and although he hunched over in something akin to deference, he replied, “Mine now, found it fair and square.”

I produced a dagger from my sleeve and pressed it against his cheek. “I said, drop it, it’s mine.”

I saw him swallow, then he did just that, taking a step back and spreading his empty hands for me to see. “Fine, it’s yours.” I continued to glare at him until he took another two steps back, then he turned away. “It looked warm, is all,” he muttered, and I felt a small stab of remorse. Ridiculous, since it wasn’t my fault that he was a beggar, nor could I afford to lose my cloak, but before I could stop myself I had dug a silver from the pocket in my sleeve and tossed it at him, cursing myself for my silly sentimentalism. One of these days it’d get me killed.

I didn’t wait for his response, instead striding away and pulling the cloak around me. I fetched the rag from the pocket and pulled up the hood, and brushed at my face as I moved from shadow to shadow through the streets of Mazar. The lamp lighters had done their job in this affluent district, but before long I reached the seedier part of town and the lights became sparser. I didn’t mind – it made it easier to avoid the guards, though most of them were inattentive anyway, dozing away in sheltered corners or leaning on their pikes.

When the scent of horse manure and mud became stronger I knew I was nearly back at the inn, and I idly skirted around another beggar, this one asleep – or passed out drunk – in the gutter. We had picked our lodgings more for its rough, easy to climb walls than its other virtues, though luck would have it that the rooms were mostly vermin-free and the food was better than average. Apart from that they also didn’t ban half-elves from staying, as many of them did, which meant a rare occasion for us to feel like more than second-rate citizens and social outcasts. I quickly ascended the wall and slipped through the window, and heard my sister stir when I landed lightly on the floor.

“Rin?” she asked sleepily, before rubbing her eyes and clambering out of bed. “I hadn’t expected you back so quickly, so I went to sleep.”

She moved to the table, and as she took up a cloth and wetted it in a bowl of soapy water left there for that purpose I sat down facing her, giving a half-hearted shrug. “Job was easier than I thought it would be, plus I wanted to get out of there before I threw up.”

Shani raised her eyebrows. “Oh?”

I grimaced and sighed. “I heard him snore. Couldn’t help but wonder if he still had his whore with him.”

Her expression went flat, and she started scouring my face a little more viciously. “I still don’t understand why the king allows it,” she muttered.

“Because he can’t enforce it without help of the local elven lords, and they’re not likely to get rid of their favourite pastime,” I said patiently. “Ow, Shani, that hurts!”

She eased off. “Sorry, but I just don’t get it. He hates our kind, and they’re perpetuating our existence.”

I sighed and took her wrist. “Why do we always end up having this conversation? You know how it works. Elves call the shots, and if they want to fuck humans they’ll do as they please. Humans keep everything going in the meantime, keen to keep their cushy jobs, so they’re not likely to protest. And we…”

“We get by as best we can, I know,” she said resignedly. “But for a king who professes to loathe us as much as he does, he’s doing surprisingly little about it.”

I shrugged. “I suppose persecuting us is more fun than preventing our existence. He’s been king for what, fifteen decades? Life must get boring after such a long time.”

“Well, excuse me if I can’t feel much sympathy,” she said, dropping the cloth on the table. “There, you’re clean.”

“Thanks.” I smiled at her and studied her face in the light of the single candle, noting with relief that she had already put the issue behind her again. My sister was a dreamer and an inveterate optimist, always hopeful that life would somehow get better, that things would change, and although she refused to ever believe otherwise, she never dwelt on it for too long and was quick to move on and let go. I, on the other hand, was the cautious one, the pessimist, the one who always expected the worst. I suppose we balanced each other out.

For all our differences, I had never needed a mirror – I only ever needed to look at Shani. I knew her dark brown eyes were also mine, that her fiery red hair echoed my own colouring and that my skin glowed with the exact same muted tan. My face ended in the same pointed chin, showed the same high cheekbones, featured the same straight, almost aristocratic nose. People had called us beautiful, and eerily alike, and eventually I had lopped off my hair just below the chin, both out of frustration of always being mistaken for my twin sister and out of practicality. It wasn’t easy – or smart, for that matter – to be a thief with hair reaching down to your waist, and a night in a prison cell after a pursuing victim had snatched me by the braid had been the final thing to convince me of it.

I had owed my life to Naerev after that, escaping the gallows when he fetched me out in the middle of the night, and two weeks after that I had left him. I would rather continue to learn my trade on my own than give him the kind of gratitude he seemed to expect of me after that.

Shani followed me, of course. Different though our vocations may have been, neither of us would ever desert the other, for all we had was each other, ever since our escape from the half-elf orphanage at thirteen. Had we stayed, we might have been picked up as slaves like so many of our kind, or else kicked out at seventeen to fend for ourselves – except that Shani had started to show signs of being a sorceress, which meant she would have been enslaved by some elven lord within days. The talent was rare and extremely valuable, and since I had no magic we would have been split up – a thought neither of us could bear.

Once the last traces of illegal activity had been wiped from my face I rested my forehead against my sister’s, and set my hand on her shoulder in silent camaraderie. We were as alike as two stars in the sky, and as different as the sun and the moon. Neither of us knew what we wanted from life, so we took it as it came, following our whims and letting fate drive us or guide us, never certain which of the two it was.

Society restricted us; Shani was right about King Sovander hating half-elves. To him we were abominations, worse than vermin. If he could have eradicated us he would have, but half-elves were too numerous, and the rest of the elvish nobility were too used to having us as their slaves.

Those of us who weren’t slaves lived like we did: on the edge. Some were thieves, like me, but most half-elves scrounged at odd jobs, hiding away as labourers for tolerant human artisans and disappearing whenever the royal guards came by to check for illegal half-elf workers, since it was forbidden for us to carry out any skilled labour, on penalty of death.

Naerev had taught me to pickpocket, to steal small items unnoticed from shops and market stalls, and how to carry out the basics of burglary. It had been hard to continue it after leaving him, but in the year since then Shani and I had developed other – though equally illegal – ways of obtaining money, and we got by.

It wasn’t much of a life, I reflected as I rolled into bed, but at least we were free. It was more than many of our kind could say.

 *   *   *   *   *

Yet life always seemed to rub our fate in our face, sometimes casually and sometimes with vigour, as I discovered the next day. We were at the market – not the posh one in the elvish district, but the mid-town one, where you could get anything from cattle through poultry to fabrics and weapons – idly scoping out further targets and eyeing the wares. I picked a few pockets while I was at it, but I had fenced my nightly haul that morning and my purse was heavy with solid, untraceable coin, so I did it more out of habit than for any other reason.

My gaze wandered past a wicker cage full of nervously clucking chickens, then rested for a few moments with vague amusement on two carters up ahead, who were bickering loudly over whose ox-cart had the right of way. By now it was neither, since one ox had entangled itself in the harness of the other and it was lowing mournfully, but the carters paid it no heed and continued their argument.

For a heartbeat I thought it was them who were the cause of the small congregation next to them, but then I realised that the people in it were all facing towards the proclamation board at the side of the square, and were studying one particular notice on it. We struggled our way through the crowd to see, and the reason for the interest became abundantly clear when I read the notice:

Citizens of Arlennis,

Due to the theft of the King’s most prized possession, an act intolerable and inexcusable to the Gods as well as His Majesty, it has been decreed that in each town and city of Arlennis twenty half-elves shall be arrested and executed to atone for this crime and to appease the Gods.

 Any who resist, obstruct or oppose this decree shall be treated in the same way.

 By order of Sovander Mo’hanna, by the Grace of the Gods King of Arlennis.

“Most prized possession, eh?” someone commented. “What was that then?”

Someone else snorted in contempt. “Can’t have been his soul, elves don’t have one! Nah, they say it was some keepsake from his youth.”

“And they stole it? From the palace?”

I could understand the disbelief. The palace was crammed to the hilt with security, and boasted enough sorcerers for everything to be warded as well as locked.

“Like a ghost, they were. No locks damaged, no wards broken,” the knowing man asserted to everyone. “Kingy’s furious, as you can see.”

“And that’s all they stole? No gold, no jewels?” the first speaker asked.

“Nope. Just that one thing, whatever it was. Seems daft to me, to risk that much for nothing useful, but then it wasn’t me what stole it.” The man laughed, a rich guffaw that had a few others chortling along.

The exchange had taken place while I was still deciphering the script, and by the time I reached the end Shani was already tugging at my sleeve. She was a better and faster reader than I, and understood sooner that we had to leave, and quickly. Yet I still stood, aghast at this curt, cold announcement that could mean death for the two of us if we simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Which could be now. “You’d better run, luvvie,” an old lady next to me muttered. I stared at her, and she pointed towards the other side of the square.

I followed her gesture, and a cold hand clamped around my heart as I recognised the vivid blue and green tabards of the royal guards. There were five of them, standing out boldly on their gigantic Tizarian steeds, and they towered over everyone else present, their eyes scanning the crowd.

“Thanks,” I muttered, finally giving in to Shani’s incessant tugging and ducking away from the people at the board. Not everyone would be as sympathetic as the old lady, certainly not this close to the royal court in Arlis, though there were also few people who would outright hand us in – Sovander wasn’t popular among humans either.

We moved away from the guards, past the last few market vendors, and after a last glance at the blue and green figures in the distance I swiftly darted between two stalls to make my exit.

At least, that was my intention. Rather than the smooth manoeuvre I had planned I collided with a solid body clad in sturdy dark clothes. My subconscious registered the subtleties of a thief’s outfit, but as I steadied myself, muttered an apology and glanced at the face of the man I had bumped into, all my thoughts were washed away. For several moments that felt like an eternity, all I could see were his eyes – the deepest, darkest eyes I had ever seen. They were black as velvet, impossible to read, and I could have drowned in them had he not drawn back a little and nodded his head to me.

“Mylady,” he murmured, brushing the creases from my sleeves, his voice polite but with a hint of mockery. It was subtle, but like knows like, and the slightly upturned corner of his mouth was an expression I had worn all too often myself: thinly veiled arrogance and contempt.

It was annoying to have such a look aimed at me, but not surprising, since he was a half-elf too. Many of our kind had been forced to develop survival techniques, and a forbidding mask of arrogance often staved off unwanted questions. No, what really annoyed me was my instant attraction to this man. His hair was as dark as his eyes, haphazardly cut and brushing his shoulders, and it framed a strong, angular face with a straight nose and lush black eyebrows. The combination was devilishly sexy, and far too disconcerting for my comfort. I muttered another platitude before turning around to get away from his unsettling presence, only to bump once again into a man in dark clothing.

The déjà vu was so strong that for a moment I was paralysed in stark and utter terror. Once more there were blackest eyes, a mocking mouth, black shaggy hair, and my confused mind could not comprehend how this could happen twice in a row, in opposite directions. Only when I turned my head and saw the original man still behind me, his grin now more pronounced, did I understand: twins!

For a few moments more I stared back and forth between them, wondering at the coincidence of one identical twin running into another, but then I remembered the guards, and Shani.

I spotted her a few feet behind the first man, her eyes sending frantic messages to me. This time I did not bother saying anything, I merely ducked around him and rushed to my sister.

“What happened there?” she asked, frowning at me and trying to pull me along and away. I shook my head, unable to explain and distracted by a nagging feeling that something was wrong. When I turned around once more to look back at the twins the feeling clicked: one of them grinned at me and waved a purse. My purse.

I cursed and started back, closely followed by Shani, but the men did not wait for me. Cocky they may have been, but they weren’t stupid.

Had I not been an experienced pickpocket myself, they would have lost me within moments. As it was, I knew the tricks they would play, because they were my own tricks. I knew how they would try to melt into the crowd, which direction they were most likely to take, and although Shani was no thief, she and I had been together long enough for her to follow me without problems. Even so, I quickly recognised the mastery we were up against. Any moves of mine which should have anticipated theirs turned out to be a moment too late. I had trouble keeping pace, and realised with growing despair that catching them would be impossible.

It made me furious. I was the thief, I held the money; Shani trusted me with it. Being robbed by a master was no excuse; thieves did not get robbed. So when I saw their dark heads move back in the direction of the royal guards, I acted on impulse. If we could not have that money, neither could they.

“Thieves! Over there, half-elf thieves!” I shouted, pointing. People turned their heads and craned their necks, and I called again for good measure: “Filthy black-haired thieves!”

The guards perked up and the crowd closed in, their attention too riveted on the two men to notice that my sister and I were half-elves too. I caught a glimpse of two dark, struggling figures between bright blue and green, and with a satisfied grin I ducked down, yanked Shani with me and disappeared down a side street.

It wasn’t until we stopped in a quiet alley somewhere and Shani turned her accusing gaze on me that I fully realised what I had just done. Remorse hit immediately, further enforced by her words.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” she hissed, and I lowered my eyes in shame. She waited, but when I offered no explanation she continued, “What in Eternity got into you? Yes, they stole our money, but they’ll get executed now, Rin. Executed. They were half-elves! How could you?”

“We’ll… We’ll spring them out,” I stammered, unable to think of another solution. “They won’t hang them until they have twenty, so we should have time. It’ll be hard, but you’re right, I shouldn’t have done that. I was…” I hesitated, trying to make sense of myself in my mind, and had to admit that I had simply been too annoyed at my instant attraction to the first man to think straight. “I don’t know what came over me,” I finished, too embarrassed to voice the truth, even to Shani.

She gave me a pensive, puzzled look. “You mean it? We’ll get them out?” When I nodded she grinned and pulled me into a hug, and I knew I was forgiven. We retreated to a hiding spot and began our preparations for what I knew would be the hardest task of my life so far.

 *   *   *   *   *

Whatever thoughts I had had about the difficulty of that night’s rescue mission – and I had not been optimistic – the reality proved three times worse. We had carefully scouted out the local prison and had found it disturbingly well guarded and fortified. It was part of Mazar’s court house and guard station, a large, complex building which would have a labyrinth of rooms and corridors inside. The guards looked alert and well-armed, and neither of us dared to use the seduction trick we often performed on tavern visitors – right now all it was likely to accomplish would be our own arrest to be added to the half-elf tally for execution.

It wasn’t until two measures after sunset that we were finally rewarded with a small side door which only had one guard. Shani worked her quiet magic, sending him to sleep, and I spent a quarter measure sweating over the lock before it finally succumbed.

Things didn’t improve much after that. There were a lot of doors, most of them locked, and all of them were as hard as the first one. On top of that virtually every corridor required Shani’s intervention; either an illusion to distract a guard, or another sleep spell to take them out altogether. I avoided her eyes as we worked, unwilling to see my own worry echoed. My lockpicking was getting us in, and her spells were keeping us going, but we were both tiring fast.

It happened when we got to the seventh locked door. I was tired beyond belief and losing concentration, my fingers almost too slippery to work the delicate lockpicks, but I stubbornly refused to admit defeat. I had just selected a pick and inserted it into the keyhole when the door suddenly opened inward, neatly wrenching the metal tool out of my fingers. Only years of training to be silent while at work stopped me from shrieking, but in that first instant of terror I was convinced that we had been caught and everything had been in vain. Then I looked up, drowned once again in a velvety black gaze, and my heart galloped away in a different kind of panic.

He stood there, stock still with his own picks still raised, and for several heartbeats his expression held total and utter astonishment, his gaze locked to mine. Then his eyes flickered with something I could not recognise, and he pulled himself together and moulded his face back into its mask of mocking arrogance. Only then could I tear my eyes away to acknowledge his brother behind him. His face too was set in that same expression, but although they looked more alike than even Shani and I ever had, I knew in that instant that I would never mix them up. They were both equally handsome, but that immediate, infuriating tug of attraction only happened when I looked at the thief, not at the other.

“We came to rescue you,” Shani said softly, breaking the frozen scene. I winced at how loud it sounded, and so did the twin at the back, but the man in front of me curled his lips into a contemptuous smile, never taking his eyes off me.

“Cute, Little Firelocks, but as you can see also wholly unnecessary.” His voice was barely above a whisper, but it was as velvety as his eyes, and I had to suppress a shiver at the unwanted sensations it provoked. I felt stupid for not realising that a master thief – like I had already assessed him to be – would need no help in escaping from a prison, and inadequate for being dead on my feet after picking only six locks, while he looked as fresh as if he had just emerged from an invigorating bath.

I was still contemplating my own failures when the first twin tapped two fingers against his head in a mocking salute and said, still only just above a whisper, “Well, ladies, it has been a pleasure, but I’m afraid we cannot stay to chat.” With that he brushed past me, his brother close behind him.

In that instant my temper came flaring back and I yanked my lockpick out of the door before whirling around and grabbing the thief’s arm. “That’s it?” I hissed. “We risk our own lives to get you out and that’s all you have to say?”

He stopped and turned his head, raising an eyebrow. “I seem to recall it was you who got us here in the first place?”

I blushed, but stood my ground and did not let go. “I seem to recall it was you who broke the thieves’ code and stole my purse,” I snapped.

For a heartbeat I thought that barb had hit home: his expression showed a quick flash of something close to admiration, but then the mask was back and the sneering grin returned. “Oh, you’re a thief? I hadn’t noticed.”

Behind me, Shani sucked in a hissing breath, and my fury tripled. I think I was about to do something supremely stupid when the other twin raised his hand and put it on his brother’s shoulder. “Zash,” was all he said, but that one word held a myriad of messages. Impatience, annoyance, appeasement and a warning – it was all there, and after a breath or two the first twin gave a grudging nod.

“Fine, I suppose I shouldn’t have done that,” he muttered. It appeared that that was all I was going to get though: he smoothly took my hand, pressed a kiss on my fingers and gave a quick, sarcastic bow before turning away and saying, “We still can’t stay to chat though. Really must dash.”

As he darted down the corridor his brother glanced at us and made an almost imperceptible head gesture to follow them. Not that I needed that encouragement; my feet had already started moving, and within two heartbeats Shani and I had caught up with them.

“Wait,” I whispered, once again yanking a dark sleeve. This time when his head whipped back his eyes showed plain and unchecked fury.

Now what?” His anger was almost palpable, but anger I could handle, unlike his mocking courteousness.

“Were you planning to go out the front door?” I challenged him. “You may be good, but you’re not that good.” That barb did hit home: I saw his anger flare higher before he gritted his teeth and tamped it down.

“I take it you have a better suggestion?”

“As a matter of fact, I have. You could go out the side entrance, the way we two came in. Some of the guards will probably still be asleep.”

“Asleep, eh?” The contemptuous smile was back, curling around his mouth.

“Yes, asleep,” Shani cut in. “We don’t kill people. I’m a sorceress.”

At that, the second twin’s head whipped up and I saw pleased astonishment in his eyes as he gazed at my sister. His brother, however, shook his head in disgust and turned. “Very well then, do lead on. It seems there’s no getting rid of you pests,” he hissed.

I glared at him as I moved into the lead. Pests! And that coming from someone who barely looks any older than we are! I didn’t voice the thought, however, just took satisfaction from having broken his mask and focused my concentration back on our environment. As it was, we were lucky not to have been caught yet.

As we snuck our way back out of the building, I once again had the thief’s mastery confirmed. He made no sound at all when moving, and his ability to blend into the shadows was beyond anything I’d ever seen. Naerev had not been nearly as good as that. It only made me more determined; I might not have been as good as this mysterious thief, but I was a damn sight better than a beginner, and felt the need to prove that to him.

Perhaps it was that ambition, or that spark of competition he lit in me, but we very quickly became attuned to each other. We anticipated each other’s movements, and although our communications gestures were ordinary thieves’ cant, neither of us needed more than half a hand movement to understand what was meant. Shani and the other twin, too, fell into an easy pattern, both of them obviously used to taking their cues from us in the front, yet allowing each other room.

Mercifully we reached the side door without incident, though it wasn’t until we were all outside and out of sight in a dark alley that I allowed myself to breathe more easily. I was acutely aware of the thief twin’s proximity, and although I wasn’t looking at him I could almost feel his midnight eyes boring into my back.

Now that the immediate danger was over I had nothing to distract me from my unwanted and unprovoked attraction to him, and I was struggling to find something to say. I wanted him a long, long way away from me, but at the same time I wanted to stay with him, get to know him and learn from him. I had never felt this conflicted in my life, and it still infuriated me. Before I found any words, however, a subdued glow appeared behind me, and both of us whirled around, ready to face whatever had found us.

It wasn’t what I had expected. Shani and the other twin stood facing each other, a large, red rose made of slowly swirling smoke suspended between their dark silhouettes. It originated from the second twin’s hand, and his teasing smile was meant for my sister alone.

Her smile in return was guarded, but although I couldn’t see the expression in her eyes, her body language told me that she was more than pleased. She wasn’t going to give in to this man’s charms easily though – as I watched the rose slowly drift upwards and towards her, she lifted her hand and made a few gestures.

A dragon’s head, red and gold in the darkness, materialised beside the rose and delicately, almost daintily bit the flower off its stem. I chuckled as both images disappeared, impressed as always with my sister’s imagery. The second twin’s delighted grin showed that he, too, was pleased with the exchange.

The thief gave a resigned sigh beside me and I turned to him and commented, “Well, what are the chances of that, eh? Not just two identical twins, not just two thieves, but two sorcerers as well.” I delighted in the flash of annoyance passing across his face – anything to break that infuriating mask of arrogance and mockery – then walked up to Shani and her suitor.

“Long overdue, I suppose, but I think introductions wouldn’t be out of place by now,” I said, interrupting their absorption of each other. “My name is Chiarin, and this is Shaniel.”

“Shaniel…” the sorcerer repeated, as if to taste the sound. Then he focused on me and inclined his head. “Pleasure to meet you, ladies. I am Miorev, or just Mior. My grumpy brother there is Zashter.”

“And now that that’s over with, let’s go for tea and biscuits in the park, I’m sure everyone would be delighted,” Zashter said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. Mior frowned, but before he could say anything his brother snapped, “Oh, for the love of the Gods, can we get going? We’ve already wasted more time than I would have ever thought was possible.”

Mior hesitated, but now it was Shani’s turn to get annoyed. “So sorry to have intruded upon your precious time,” she hissed. “So sorry for getting in your way and presenting our purse for you to steal. And believe me, we are truly sorry for risking our own insignificant lives to try and rescue what we thought might be some kindred spirits!”

I should learn from my sister. It was the first time I’d seen Zashter truly taken aback, and this time the guilt on his face was unmistakeable. He briefly sought his brother’s eyes, then looked down and fumbled inside his jerkin.

“Here,” he said, thrusting something towards me. It took only a moment for me to recognise my purse, still heavy with coin.

“Take it, it’s all the apology you’ll get out of him,” Mior commented. “My brother isn’t much for saying sorry.”

I gave a distracted nod, still staring at Zashter in surprise. “How did you manage to hang on to that in prison?”

That brought back the arrogant grin. “I didn’t,” he said. “Mazar’s prison guards are kind – or lazy – enough to keep the evidence room practically next door to the cells.”

“Well… Thank you,” I said sincerely. He showed surprise for a heartbeat, then gave a curt nod, turned on his heels and stalked off without even checking whether Mior followed him.

I watched his retreating back with something akin to despair. The jumble of conflicting emotions in my head hadn’t subsided yet, and I found myself still wanting to stay near him, both to satisfy my craving for a good teacher and simply because I was attracted to him. “Wait!” I called before I could stop myself.

Mior was the first to turn around, his face almost hopeful, though he was looking at Shani, not me. Zashter took a moment longer, then he also stopped and turned around. “Now what?” It was snappish, but almost resigned, and somehow less forbidding than he had been up until then.

I didn’t know how to continue though, and stuttered through a few unintelligible syllables before I blurted out, “We’d like to go with you.”

From the corner of my eyes I saw Shani’s head snap towards me, but I didn’t look at her. If I did, I’d be lost. I had a sudden sensation, an unmistakeable feeling that we were at a crossroads in our lives, and that whatever happened here would determine our destiny. I tried to keep the desperation out of my voice as I continued, this time certain of what I needed to say.

“I know you’re a team, but so are we. I know how you two work together, because we work the same. We’re not nearly as good as you two are – I’ve never seen such mastery – but we can learn from you, and we can help you. You saw how well we worked together, without ever having done so before. Please, let us come with you. I don’t know why you’re here, or where you’re going, but I don’t care. Please.”

For several heartbeats no one moved. Zashter’s face was unreadable in the dark and I held my breath, barely realising I was doing so. Then, as he seemed about to say something, Mior took two quick strides and started whispering in his ear. I could not hear any of it, but Zashter’s face turned pensive as he listened, until he finally gave a nod.

“Very well then,” he said, and I let my pent up breath escape. It seemed too easy a victory, but at that moment I was too elated to care. I resolutely pushed my conflicting emotions into a deep, dark corner of my mind and concentrated instead on the joy I felt at finally having a teacher again. My heart still fluttered whenever I looked at Zashter, but I ignored it as best I could.

“Right then,” he said, turning to business. “The first thing we’ll need to do is get out of Mazar. The ground is getting a little too hot under our feet here. Do you two have any belongings stashed anywhere?”

Shani nodded quickly. “We hid our backpacks near the town wall before we came to find you. We figured we might need a quick escape.”

“Good, go fetch them,” Zashter said, turning away again. “We’ll wait for you near the west gate, there’s a spot near there where we can climb over the wall.”

“I’ll go,” I said, motioning for Shani to follow the two men, and was rewarded with an approving nod from both.

“You know rule number one then – trust no one,” Zashter said, a hint of mockery now back in his voice.

“It’ll be a long time before I trust you,” I muttered as I walked away, and blushed furiously as his rich laughter followed me down the street.


Did you enjoy reading the first chapter of the Ritual by Erica Dakin? Of course! For more information about the book and the author, check out Erica Dakin’s website.